If you run a small ballet company in Minnesota, as James Sewell does, what better gambit than to hitch your creative talents to those of a far more famous native son? Guy Noir: The Ballet is not only built around the tough-talking, jelly-hearted detective created weekly by Garrison Keillor on American Public Media’s A Prairie Home Companion; its pleasantly preposterous scenario by Sewell and his wife, Sally Rousse, is narrated by Keillor (on tape), with Rich Dworsky’s familiar music played by The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band.
Without Keillor’s words, the plot wouldn’t scuttle along as expeditiously as it does, but Sewell comes up with some clever dance ideas for his whodunit, which centers on a choreographic competition sponsored by the Acme Tulle Company (the “Tulle” is a silly joke; it’s tools we’re dealing with). Penelope Freeh as Martha Isadora gets a lot of mileage out of a buzzing chainsaw with a very long cord. Nicolas Lincoln and Brittany Fridenstine polka with a tree saw (I love designer Mary Hansmeyer’s circular-saw tutu). To Chopin’s “Funeral March,” Justin Leaf, dressed as Hamlet, demonstrates workplace safety with alarmingly little knowledge of his topic. Benjamin Johnson as Noir gets to partner the blonde (Peggy Seipp-Roy) who’s recruited him by wheeling her around on a handcart. The goings-on are all amiably funny, if not always pointed in terms of dramatic pacing.
Sewell’s at his best in formal works. In Anagram
, he builds attractive phrases to Schubert’s Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano in A Minor and introduces interestingly edgy little elements as well—such as women picking around on pointe between the legs of supine men and Leaf collapsing into the arms of Freeh at the end of their duet. In the beginning, Leaf climbs out of the audience to join the dance; later, passing across the back, he decides to shadow and then intrude upon a duet being performed by Johnson and Rousse (she’s beautifully sensitive in this). Leaf is a fascinating and beguiling dancer—so lanky, loose, and idiosyncratic that his fine-tuned ballet chops take you by surprise.
Anagram begins to flag toward the end, and Involution
certainly does. Influenced by Sewell’s experiences in yoga and qigong, the dance sends a bunch of individuals, who seem unable to hold their bodies together, on a journey toward a more harmonious and coordinated state where unison is possible. It’s a long trip. Thomas Newman’s score starts out clamorous, turns Rite of Spring–ish, and ends up meandering as sweetly as chiropractic-office music. The piece is most compelling in its weird plastiques and an initial diagonal parade of unstable individuals with collapsing limbs, who trudge and trip and splat into falls. At one point, someone seems to be trying to write on the floor with an elbow. Lincoln wants to keep his hand glued to Freeh’s forehead no matter how much pain he’s causing her. When she collapses, he places her inert hand on his brow. If dances could speak, this one would be saying, “Hmm, I think I’ll end now. No, maybe it would be a good idea if I put in a little more struggle . . . Hey, here’s a good place to stop. Oh, wait, this’ll be great!”
Decades ago, modern-dance pioneer Doris Humphrey printed a checklist for choreographers in her book The Art of Making Dances. One rule is “All dances are too long.” No one pays much attention to such strictures anymore, in part because the work of ’60s artists like Kenneth King, Meredith Monk, and Robert Wilson taught us to view time differently—prolonging some actions until we thought time had stopped altogether, repeating others until they were burned into our brains.
We can watch Robert Wilson’s extraordinary production of Peer Gynt (see Feingold’s review, page 68) for almost four hours, with an intermission, and not tire (well, maybe near the end, but only because we’ve had a long day, and Ibsen is making his last serious demands on our moral sense). Yet dances lasting 20 or 30 minutes can seem too long, especially if they reveal at the outset that they’re structured conventionally—taking, say, cause and effect, climax and denouement fairly seriously. As with these works of Sewell’s, it’s not the actual length of a piece but how time is shaped within it that can cause a committed viewer to feel suddenly adrift in a boat going nowhere on a featureless sea.